When Everyday Chemicals Cause Illness

New York TimesPractical Traveler-Sunday Edition
Published: November 6, 2005

LAST year, Mary Lamielle, of Voorhees, N.J., traveled to Washington for a business meeting. Her room, at the Grand Hyatt, "was perfect," she recalled. But when she ventured into the conference area, she experienced vertigo and breathing problems, which she believed were caused by chlorinated water in the hotel's decorative pools. Within a day, she was so sick, she said, that she couldn't attend the session she had organized on healthy housing for people with disabilities.

Ms. Lamielle, the executive director of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, an advocacy group, suffers from what doctors variously label multiple chemical sensitivities or environmental illness, an elusive malady that can make exposure to household and industrial chemicals debilitating. Sufferers tend to purge their environments of products that cause them distress. But it's almost impossible to do that in hotels. For those with the symptoms, Ms. Lamielle said, traveling for pleasure is an oxymoron.

But there are resources that can help.

Nancy Westrom of Ocala, Fla., publishes the Safer Travel Directory - $17, on the Web at www.safertraveldirectory.com - a booklet meant to help the chemically sensitive find lodging in 40 states and a dozen foreign countries promising relative safety from pesticides and other chemicals. But the needs of such travelers vary widely, and Ms. Westrom warns in the front of the book that all lodgings pose "unforeseen risks."

Some of the hotels in the book are run by people with the disease, like Joyce Charney, who, with her husband, Alan, owns the Natural Place, in Deerfield Beach, Fla., www.thenaturalplace.com. The Natural Place offers apartment-style units with organic bedding and filtered water, a block and a half from the ocean. The owners depend on the cooperation of guests, who are "asked to sign a 'quality assurance form' when they check in," said Ms. Charney. On the form, guests promise not to use "cologne, perfume or any scented make-up, soaps, lotions, sun tan products, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, deodorant, etc."

Kim Bowen, who with her husband, John, owns the Crow Wing Crest Lodge, www.crowwing.com, in Akeley, Minn., said she makes her own organic cleaning products and insect repellants from herbs and essential oils. One of her recent, chemically sensitive guests, Zane Madsen, of Dennison, Minn., said that she was attracted to the hotel's no-pet and no-smoking policies, and its avoidance of products with artificial scents.

A number of hotels in the Safer Travel Directory use air- and water-filtering devices offered by EverGreen Rooms, www.evergreenrooms.com, based in Wilmington, N.C. Other hotels buy cleaning products from Green Suites International, www.greensuites.com, of Upland, Calif.

One focus of Green Suites is sustainability - energy efficiency and use of recycled materials. But some of those materials, Ms. Lamielle said, may harm chemically sensitive people. For example, flooring may be made of recycled rubber bound with chemical adhesives. "They're doing things that are environmentally more sound, but not necessarily more healthy," she said.

Ms. Westrom, who began publishing the Safer Travel guide in 1998, said, "I'm surprised by how many new listings come my way all the time." On her Web site, environmental illness sufferers leave comments that would never appear in a conventional travel guide. "As nontoxic as my own bedroom, " wrote a traveler of the Arbor House, a bed-and-breakfast in Madison, Wis.

But there are also complaints. A hotel guest who believed that her mattress was making her sick demanded to have it covered in heavy foil. And a hotelier, Ms. Westrom said, complained that a guest with multiple chemical sensitivities "was so comfortable in the hotel that she refused to leave."

Ms. Lamielle said that sufferers are best off finding a hotel that they can tolerate, and sticking with it. In Washington, she said, she generally chooses the Capital Hilton, where her linens and towels are washed in baking soda before her arrival. She asks for a room away from renovation work (which often involves chemical compounds) and on a corner, where there are more windows: "Not that the D.C. air is so great, but sometimes it's best to let the inside air dissipate," she said.

Ms. Lamielle said she reserves far in advance whenever possible, and sends multiple e-mails confirming that various measures have been taken. The Capital Hilton doesn't charge for the services she requests, but Ms. Lamielle said she leaves generous tips for the housekeepers.

She added that with a couple of exceptions, hotels have been willing to answer her questions about their use of chemicals. But those instances of a lack of cooperation, she said, illustrate a need to educate the hospitality industry to the requirements of chemically sensitive travelers.

It helps, she added, that those needs overlap the preferences of millions of Americans who don't have the disease. "There are plenty of other people who, when they open the door to a hotel room, don't want to smell perfume," she said.

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